Writing About Music . . .

. . . is like dancing about architecture.  (Martin Mull)

This quote has been rattling around in my mind quite frequently as of late.  You see, amidst all the activity that is composition, and all the activity that surrounds that work (classroom visits, site maintenance, recording and mixing, etc., etc., etc.,) comes the search for the next project.

As a new composer fresh out of grad school, I had the chance to ask a fellow composer for his insight into this full-time, freelancing career.  He gave me some valuable advice, including the hard truth that I couldn’t depend on any sort of linear progress in my career.  As nice as it would be for one opportunity to lead to the next, and the next, and then the next, that isn’t how it works.  You have to cast a web, the wider the better, and explore every little tug that you feel.  Some things will pan out, others won’t, but it’s pretty much a given that there will be very few direct lines between events.

So when I’m not busily composing away, I’m usually looking for the next chance to compose.  Lately, there seems to have been a spate of potential commissions popping up.  And what they all have in common is something I’ve come to dread:  The Proposal.

On the one hand, I get it.  These organizations will likely be getting quite an influx of applications for these various commissions, and in order to ensure the awardee best fits their goals is to learn as much about them in as compact a package as possible.

But “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  Trying to describe in words what is, at least for me, an emotional and rather intangible process is difficult, almost bordering on impossible.  Not to mention the fact that the listener’s visceral response to my music may be quite different than my own intention.

One of my earliest works garnered a huge compliment from a friend, who described one section of the work that moved him to great joy.  Yet the section he found joyous was one that was quite dark in my view.  Although my intention in the composition process was different, I realized that he wasn’t wrong in his interpretation.  Because he experienced the work through his senses, colored by his life experiences, it led him down a different path than I had taken.

This was a real learning experience for me, and I realized that once I set my music loose, I could no longer control how it was presented and perceived.  As a result, I have learned to keep my program notes quite spare and sparse, giving only a loose framework so listeners are free to hear the music on their own terms.  When I find myself reading program notes that are very complex and technical, incredibly detailed in what the composer expects the listener to hear and feel, I often become frustrated.  Ultimately, if I don’t “hear” the work exactly as the composer describes, I find myself struggling to simply accept what I am hearing without critiquing the composer’s intention.

This is even more difficult when the composer seems to have generated their program notes with the help of this.  (Go to enough new music concerts, and you’ll see these are not so far-fetched.)  I am simultaneously amazed and disheartened when I read a program note that reads almost like a page from my brother’s doctoral thesis on aeronautical engineering.

The manner in which composers present themselves and represent their works is what a potential commissioner has available to make their judgment.  While it would be nice to think they will go to every single composer’s site and listen to most of their catalog of music, it’s not practically feasible, especially when the applicant pool is very large.  But while you are reading through your proposals, sifting through the descriptions that range from mind-numbingly technical to vague, generic “oooh, pick me” pleas, I encourage you to keep in mind a couple of things.  First, I express myself and my soul in music because that’s a better, truer view of me than anything I could say in words.  And second, the ability to construct or deconstruct a work of art in a scientific manner doesn’t make it inherently better, or more solid, or more groundbreaking.  It’s whether it touches your soul that matters.

Because “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

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My New Reality Show

I’ve often thought of pitching a reality show that follows a composer around in their day-to-day activities.  I mean a real reality show, with the person in the career they had long before the reality show started.  Something you know they’ll still be doing long after it ends.

Then I realize what the show would really be.  A lot of this…image

interspersed with a bit of that…image

not to mention…image

Of course, you’d also see some of this…image

followed by…image

Yeah.  The day-to-day reality of composing is not all that exciting to watch.  Although, truth be told, day-to-day life for most of us is pretty low key.

Still, there are exciting moments.  And some very busy weeks!  Take these last two weeks, for example.  I’ve been working with the 8th grade keyboard classes at Ed Smith School almost every day as part of a composition residency there.  This is an opportunity for these kids to help create a new piece for premiere in May.  Add to that a performance for a local charity organization (that ultimately led to a severe case of laryngitis for me), one at a semi-annual flute showcase, nine rehearsals, and one more performance (two sets) at another local elementary school just this morning.

And in between, of course, more of this…image

There are definitely a few more weeks of that coming up.  And then another whirlwind of activity in May!

But even without the whirlwinds, I think this show could really sell!  Just look at this program.

 

Embracing Human Limitations

Have you heard the one about the efficiency expert who went to a performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony?*

Funny?  Sure.  But nowadays, it’s not too far off the mark, I fear.

I read an article a few years ago (and for the life of me, I can’t remember where, or by whom, and I haven’t been able to track it down) about reaching the limits of efficiency.  Orchestras are the most dramatic example of late, but many live arts presenters are struggling to get the greatest possible return with the least possible investment.  Theaters are moving pit orchestras to separate rooms so they can sell more seats.  Concerts are programmed based on what music the organization owns so they spend minimal amounts on new repertoire.  Sets are becoming more “minimalist” – in part, because it is less expensive to paint flats than to build a full-blown set.

In the recording industry, artists and engineers are increasing their use of multi-track recording and digital manipulation to make a few musicians sound like a crowd.  And music distributors are moving farther and farther away from “hard products” like CDs in favor of digital downloads.  It’s just getting harder and harder to recoup your investment.  Everyone is looking for the shortcut.

Every arts organization I know of is tightening their belt, looking for ways to do more with less every single year, and still bring quality performances to their audiences.  But I fear they are approaching a limit that cannot be worked around, buried, or simply willed away.

The human factor.

What I’m about to say could apply to almost any artist, but for the sake of this blog entry, let’s talk specifically about musicians.  The first factor is practice.  No matter how efficient a musician may be in their individual practice sessions, there comes a point where the body and mind simply can’t absorb the information any faster.  Once that kind of efficiency is reached, there are no shortcuts to be taken.

Nor is there a shortcut for group rehearsals.  Even if every single musician in an orchestra has practiced Torke’s Jasper until it is memorized, they still can’t simply hop up on stage the night of the performance, and give a solid performance of a 12-minute work cold.  It takes rehearsal, at tempo or below, enough times to get it right.

And then, there is the performance itself.  There are no more shortcuts left, which is the real joy of live performance.  A 12-minute work takes 12 minutes to perform.  Audience and performers are swept up in the same musical currents for the duration of a piece, bringing a unity to all the participants that is unique to the live experience.

Meanwhile, arts organizations are cutting, cutting, cutting away as much as they can, to make the most of what they have.  And I fear they are reaching that limit, the human limit, that cannot be cut any further.  Yet we continue to ask individuals to do as much (or more) with less, because there are no more shortcuts available in other areas.  In other words, we ask the impossible.

Believe me, I wish I had a solution to achieving the highest performance standards with even lower costs.  Unfortunately, I don’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Just in case you haven’t heard it . . .

An efficiency consultant gave his critique of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony:

  1. For a considerable period, the oboe players had nothing to play. Their number should be reduced, and their work spread over the whole orchestra, thus avoiding peaks of inactivity.
  2. All 24 violins were playing identical notes. This seems unnecessary duplication, and the staff in this section should be drastically cut. If a large volume of sound is needed, this could be obtained by the use of an amplifier.
  3. Much effort was involved in playing the 16th notes. This seems an excessive refinement, and it is recommended that all notes should be rounded off to the nearest eighth note. If this were done, it would be possible to paraprofessionals instead of experienced musicians.
  4. No useful purpose is served by repeating with horns the passage that has already been played by the strings. If all such passages were eliminated, the concert could be reduced from two hours to 20 minutes.
  5. The symphony is in two movements. If Schubert did not achieve his musical goals by the end of the first movement, then he should have stopped there. The second movement is unnecessary and should be cut.
  6. In the light of the above, one can only conclude that if Schubert had paid attention to such matters, his symphony would probably have been finished by now.

 

When Things Come Together

It’s an exciting time!  Rehearsals for the 2014-15 concert season have started, the Brazilian ensemble has had two performances in the last week, with two more scheduled for this week.  The flute choir repertoire is set after our reading session last week, and rehearsals start in earnest next week.

And CDs!

Last night I got a copy of the (nearly) final master for the upcoming Samba Laranja CD, featuring my work, Travels.  I am so privileged to have been involved not only in the recording of Travels, but in both performing and giving artistic input on the rest of the CD as well.  The last CD won a SAMMY – and honestly, this one is sounding even better.

Which has raised my excitement level for the new Trio Casals CD as well!  I’m working closely with the sound engineers at PARMA right now, to get Three Songs sounding just perfect.  (Not a difficult job, really, given the incredible performances by Trio Casals!)  Now I realize what a difference it will make when I can hear it in context with the rest of the CD.  I’m even more excited to hear the full master!

It’s also exciting – and a bit nervewracking – to watch the Indiegogo funding campaign.  With just 18 days left, I haven’t quite hit the 20% funding mark.  So here it is, another request for you to check out the campaign and make your contribution.  Then share it with your friends and family, and ask them to support it as well.

Trio Casals: Sylvia Ahramjian, violin, Anna Kislitsyna, piano, & Ovidiu Marinescu, 'cello

Trio Casals: Sylvia Ahramjian, violin, Anna Kislitsyna, piano, & Ovidiu Marinescu, ‘cello

 

Still not sure if you want to support a new and untried work?  That’s understandable.  And so I encourage you to read this article from Minnesota Public Radio.

A Kickstarter Summary

It’s official.  My Kickstarter campaign did not get funded.

Needless to say, I’m disappointed.  And poorer in the end, of course, since I’ll be paying for it all myself now.  But what I really am is incredibly disheartened.

I realize I’ve never been a social guru.  I was never part of the “popular” crowd in school.  I don’t post my breakfast, lunch, dinner, random bathroom thoughts and such on social media every day.  Nevertheless, I saw myself as generally well-liked and relatively well-connected.  Apparently, though, my connections don’t translate effectively into crowdsourcing.

Before I go any further, I want to give a very big thank you to everyone who did back me.  Your support – and more importantly, your belief in my music – means a great deal to me.

And that’s what I am holding onto right now.  The knowledge that I have friends and family who really do believe in me, and are willing to support me as best they can.

But you know what’s really disheartening?

This.

Some guy jokingly asks for $10 to make potato salad, and winds up with over $55,000 in his pocket.  That’s more than I made in a year at my last full-time job.

Potato salad, for $*&#()@ sake!

I tried to raise just a tenth of that – to pay for recording, mastering, production, distribution, and TWO live performances – and couldn’t even break $1,500.

I won’t get into a discussion of what makes a crowdsourced project “funding-worthy,” because that’s the whole point of crowdsourcing, right?  The public picks and chooses what they want to support.  If they want to pay for someone’s potato salad, or pirate pancake skillet, or meat soap, more power to ‘em.  And statistically, only 44% of Kickstarter projects get funded, so it’s not as though I’m in the minority.

I think sometimes, though, folks lose perspective on what they’re being asked to fund.  You know, every project up on Kickstarter is required to produce something tangible, in my case, a CD and a live performance experience.  Backers aren’t buying my groceries or paying my rent, they are buying my music.  Whether it’s a digital download, or a CD purchase, it is a tangible, real product, with significant, quantifiable costs.  So maybe the folks who pledged $110 for potato salad could have knocked it down to $100, and backed my project for the other 10 bucks.  Then they could have listened to my piece while they snacked on their bite of potato salad.

In reality, though, the broader issue is even more complicated.  When my friend, Ovidiu, put out his Kickstarter to fund a recording of the complete Bach ‘cello Suites (with PARMA as well), he raised over $8,000, pretty handily.  My project included him as a performer, and PARMA as a partner – and tanked.  So what did his Bach CD have in common with potato salad?

People know what they’re getting.

People know what potato salad should taste like.  And people know what the Bach ‘cello suites should sound like.  And they already know whether they like these things or not.

But new classical music?  That requires . . . courage.  It requires the listener to be willing to take a chance that they will like what they hear.  Or maybe not.  And it’s that “maybe not” part that keeps people away.  That makes people decide that they “don’t like” new music, without even listening to it.  Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.

Well, maybe not better.  But certainly easier.

Which presents me with a challenge.  Tempting though it is to just sit around, disheartened and disappointed, it’s not going to be very helpful.  No, I need to rise to the challenge, I need to find creative ways to disseminate my music to a broader audience, and hopefully encourage people to open their ears and their hearts and – potentially – their wallets.

Because I would like to be able to truly say that I make a living as a full-time composer.  Maybe it’s a pipe dream in the current day and age, but I want to at least try.

Wish me luck.

Learning How to Ask

I discovered something during my time in public radio.  I’m pretty good at begging for money!

Twice a year we had a pledge drive, and teamed up in pairs to ask our listeners to pledge their support to the station.  We had hourly goals, and almost every time, whether I was the host or the “pledge buddy,” we’d meet our goal.  Even though I’ve left the station, I still go back twice a year to help at pledge time.  At this point, I’m the only non-employee still “buddy-ing” on the air, so I must be doing something they like!

Asking for money to support someone else is surprisingly easy.  Support classical music on public radio, support cancer research, support your local animal shelter.  But what happens if I ask for money for myself?

I squirm, I apologize, I expect to be turned down.  I feel inadequate, as though I shouldn’t even be asking.

In all honesty, though, getting your music heard takes resources, and the most valuable resource is money.  As a composer, money is what allows me to fairly compensate musicians, to reserve recording space, to publish scores (or hire someone to do these things), and bring in enough income to allow me the time to compose.

This has been a good year for me so far.  I have two very different works coming out on two separate CDs, and the time I’ve spent in the recording studio on each of them has been phenomenal.

It’s also helped me learn how to ask.  I’ve always been so thrilled (and a little surprised) that anyone is performing my music, that I tend to take whatever they give me.  But this time around, I’m listening to each piece critically, and asking the performers to give me a little more of this, or a little less of that.  And I’ve discovered that it not only makes for a better performance, but strengthens the composer/musician relationship as we explore the nuances of the work together.

All of this has given me the confidence to ask just a little bit more.  While one of the CDs this year is being completely funded by the performing ensemble, the other is a collaborative work.  I’ve written a new piano trio for Trio Casals called Three Songs.  The CD is a collection of works, and is being coordinated through PARMA Recordings.  They have a team of talented people who bring so much to the table, which means it is well worth the price to bring an enhanced CD out with national distribution.  Frankly, they have much better resources, and can do far more for me than I could ever do on my own.

So, to help me cover the cost of my share, I’ve jumped in with both feet and started a Kickstarter campaign.  After asking on behalf of others for many years, I’m finally comfortable asking for myself.

There are two things in particular that I like about Kickstarter.  The first is that it’s all or nothing funding.  If the goal is met, the project is funded, and if not, well, no one will be out any money at all.  The second thing is that you’re funding something specific – full production of an enhanced CD, and two live performances.  And in return, I am able to give you something tangible – my music, in several forms.

And now, I’m asking you to help me.  Check out the Kickstarter campaign.  If you can’t contribute financially (and let’s face it, money is tight for all of us!), you can still help by spreading the word to your family and friends.

(In case you missed it earlier – here’s the link to the Kickstarter campaign.  Share and enjoy!  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1763978672/three-songs-for-trio-casals)

Welcoming the New Year

Like so many others do at this time of year, I am taking some time to reflect back on the last 12 months, and to look ahead to the coming months and years.  I have to say that, despite a few shortcomings, I am pleased with 2013, and very excited about 2014.

Admittedly, this whole “Thirteen in ’13” thing didn’t pan out quite the way I had planned.  I am truly disappointed that I haven’t given you 13 completed works over the course of the year.  That being said, it doesn’t mean I haven’t been working.  I’ve gone “fishing” a lot, and I have more than 13 sketches of new pieces to work on and flesh out.  (I guess that just means my “Thirteen in ’13” could be considered as “held in a private collection” for the moment.)

Of those finished works, I am especially pleased with Kelly Covert’s performance of “Iago” this past summer.  I describe this as “a short work, in honor of a life cut short,” which I wrote in memory of my late brother (“Iago” is Welsh for “James”).  Kelly gave a beautiful performance, and captured the soul of the work perfectly.

2013 also provided the opportunity to take a few breaths and get “centered” again, as it were.  Y’know how sometimes things just fall perfectly into place?  That’s exactly how I feel tonight.  Composing every day, enjoying time with family, spending time with friends, and performing around the area – as this year draws to a close, I am content in how all of those things have finally come into balance.  As 2014 begins, I feel energized and ready to enjoy boundless opportunities.

And the opportunities are already manifesting.  I have two confirmed premieres for this coming Spring, a couple of collaborative projects, some repeat performances, at least one workshop, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll hear more of my music coming up on a couple of new CDs!

So, as we count down to the midnight hour on this New Year’s eve, I wish you all health, love, happiness, and music to delight you throughout the coming year!